Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once โ˜…

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It was unavoidable. Unavoidable that I would come into this film after waves of hearing friends gushing about how life-affirming and groundbreaking it is, how it's maximalist fanfare that is not absolutely deadening like its blockbuster peers, kung-fu (I've been getting into HK cinema big time!) - with a daughter/mother relationship at its centre which sounds like a recipe for a movie I'll like, if not love. And it delivered on this front initially, it sets up a promising start with conflicts and dynamics I was interested in seeing explored. However, there was only so much I could take until the cracks started to show and I felt the film collapse under the ambitious weight of the multiverse. Did I end up versejumping into a realm where the film wasn't impressive because I have done one 'weird' thing too many in my life or is its execution and messaging not as all-captivating and resonant as it thinks it is?

Let's start by looking at the multiverse itself. On paper, I like the room for creativity it opens up as it would allow the writers to explore things from diverging angles, conceive of different worlds, place the characters different settings and ultimately bust open a wide spectrum of the possible human experience - or at the very least make for some entertaining parallels to filter things through. The execution thereof in EE (abbreviating EEAAO this way for the remainder of the piece) is compromised of exposition as to how it works, "what ifs" for its characters lives and as a convenient reason to showcase an arrangement of 'random' and 'weird' things occuring.
First off, I found the technobabble wholly detracting from the experience in this case as it showcases assumptions the writers about the viewer: that they don't 'understand' how 'multiverses' work and feel the need to explain them in excruciating detail, which in a pop culture landscape filled with multiverse and the fact that it's a big selling point for a lot of latest blockbusters seems very redundant. It's not the first time there are multiple universes in a work of fiction - just go with it! To add onto this, the in-film effect of the technobabble not only cuts into the pacing, but has a ripple effect on our protagonist, who spends a significant portion of the film trying to understand it. Time that could have been used to address the emotional and familial stakes the film presented set up interestingly in the introduction. I'd be more lenient towards this choice if it 1) didn't happen in a film whose pacing became excruciating in the second half. 2) the multiverse stuff itself ended up being more consequential than it actually was, 3) the film didn't spend so much time in the drab-looking IRS building and actually let us experience multiple universes.instead of hinting at them and 4) the conflict between the characters wasn't handled so two-dimensionally as a whole. In which case I would be forgiving of it as it would be a fun addition to a strongly-developed cast of characters, high stakes and thoroughly-explored conflicts.
As it is, it's maximalist indulgence that does not significantly add to the more interesting parts of the film - the people in it - and I'd argue it is overbearing to the point where the pathos and interpersonal relationships the film is trying to convey largely suffer for it. But to make this point clearer, we have to move onto what the film considers 'random' and 'weird', as it goes hand in hand with their execution of the multiverse and the effects it has on the messaging of the film, and the viewing experience.

Daniels are a comedy-loving bunch. They indulge in it with little compromise or restraint as shown in their previous film Swiss Army Man - and by that I mean, if they think something's funny they will really you know! Otherwise that film wouldn't have been filled with fart noises for what felt like half of its runtime. In EE, their comedy takes on different visual and audible forms, but the repetitive nature is still there. With the core idea behind it being that is 'random and weird', not only in order to accomodate the versejumping logic, but to make it an unpredictable, daring and inventive film. It is supposed to give us feelings of "wow, I didn't think they'd go there" or "why is this happening? this is so random and makes no sense at all!", leaving us in bewilderment and awe of the tricks they pull on. It wants to be random and out-of-the-ordinary, audacious and daring at the same time. Meaningful even. But is it? If we're to look at the endless swathes of positive responses to the films, this seems to be the case. It's definitely a film that tries to throw as much as possible into the screen to overwhelm and distract people, to keep them in a loop of bewilderment & awe as to keep the 'zany energy' going. It's an understandable response. But I think what it that it is a film constructed with the intent that it does not want us to be able to largely process what is actually going on, because it starts to crumble under the tiniest bit of critical scrutiny. I saw the cracks and rolled my eyes during my first viewing and then rewatched it to confirm my suspicion and reading. There's a clear pattern, a method and purpose to the visual gags projected onto the screen that not only is arguably very repetitive and calculated for what is purported to be a film where "everything everywhere happens all at once", it's a film that did not consider the possible implications of everything it throws onto screen for us to laugh at.
The method and repetition is evident when you look at what visual gags are used and how often they're repeated. The hotdog fingers, the Racacoonie bit and buttplug one being the most prominent ones, are shown repeatedly throughout the film - they are its running gags they beat you over the head with ad nauseam. There isn't a whole breadth of vastly different gags when they resort to showing you the same ones over and over again, without adding much if anything at all to them on repeat showings. In a film claiming to be about everything everywhere all at once, it doesn't even begin to offer you an array of visual gags atypical for a comedy-infused film. One could claim they've been restricted by budgets and couldn't make more gags work, but I think the fact that they've chosen to repeat a certain set of gags with diminishing returns says more about how funny they think they are than budgetary limits. Especially since there are a plethora of simple and effective gags to incorporate into your work, in the infinite possibilities of the multiverse world. Of course how comedy lands depends on the viewer, I just thought it'd be important to highlight how limited the array of limited visual gags actually are as it's a film lauded for 'endless creativity'. Repetition is not bad by itself, and can be used to great effect, but I don't think this film reiterated upon its gags effectively at all.

What is however very important and worrying to me is the messaging the film has through repetition of a certain gag whose most striking example for it is in the first instance where a butt plug is used in order for someone to 'versejump'. It's a scene in which the intention of using a buttplug is commentated on in shock and disgust, out of all people, by the queer character Joy. She disgustingly says "Oh my god, he's trying to stick it into his butt" and then hides under the cover so she can look away. Let that sink in for a moment.
We have a film where people have to do 'weird' things in order to 'versejump', So, weird' things will happen in order to accomplish this goal everyone struggling in the multiverse will make use of frequently. But what makes things 'weird'? In this instance, what is coded as 'weird' is a guy trying to use a butt plug. In a setting where weird things happen all the time, why does this particular action evoke such disgust, particularly from a queer character? Why is the action 'weird' in the first place? Assigning 'weirdness' to actions is not a neutral task and this instance, one where a sex toy that is commonly used for gay men for anal pleasure, is chosen as such. It's one thing to think they're "weird", but the writers clearly inserted an additional opinion about them by proxy of Joy, instead of leaving it as a mere visual gag for the audience to make up their mind about. And to my dismay, it did not remain the only instance of the film using butt plugs as a visual gag, it forms a recurring pattern in the film.
The thing is, 'weirdness' itself is not a neutral term. And what you're assigning 'weirdness' to, how you're framing it and what text you're adding onto it, builds a picture of what the film think about what constitutes 'weirdness' and what is 'weird' and that's important to take into account. And here is where I draw the claim from that Daniels incorporate everything they think is funny or weird into a film without properly questioning what themes or suggestions they've actually put into their work, or if they did, their framing makes me think they view anal sex as not only something weird, but something to be disgusted by. In a film where one of the core conflicts stems from homophobia and the queer daughter is framed as a villain.

Which brings us to the daughter/mother relationship, Evelyn and Joy. where the film lost me the most, not unlike how it did for a friend and great writer on film: jamie, whose review you should all read before continuing with mine because they mirror my feelings and gripes with it strongly and succinctly. (Leave a follow while you're at it - he's one of my favourite people on the site, with great insights, lists and recommendations!)
Did you read their review? Yes? Good. Let's continue with it in mind.

To piggyback off it, I want to talk about how much hinges on the word "girlfriend" here. The film treats it as the ultimate crux for acceptance/rejection, end all/be all, the deciding factor. Of course there's a greater history of Joy being treated unfairly due to her queerness by her mother hinted at the film, by the fact that she's become evil reincarnate and is threatening to bring up about the apocalypse of not only their world, but of the entire multiverse. It is rendered heavily caricaturized and reduced by handling her side of things, her emotions, her life under a homophobic parent, as something that made her become hatred itself. Someone who'd rather see entire worlds devoured and ended by a 'bagel with everything on it'. It's a shame to see it treated like this after the intro set up a promising dynamic and conflict, and to see it bookended by the word 'girlfriend', in both what is the start of the conflict in the film and what 'resolves' the film is something I couldn't help but feel is an utterly reductive handling of resolving the years-long suffering at the treament of a queerphobic parent who can't even bring herself to acknowledge a relationship you have to another person. The resolution EE tries to sell us is not much more than lip service in my eyes as someone whose queerness is firmly rejected and hated not only by my parents, but by the system we lives under. It's not about people using a certain word (saying the word 'girlfriend' does not mean harm caused is addressed or internalized homophobia worked through) or slogan (saying 'trans rights' does not prevent anti-trans legislation from being passed, we need more than lip service!). It's in the violence of being rejected and eradicated for who I am, for what I think and feel. Of being denied understanding, psychological and material support that is a matter of life and death. To see a film which enables its heart to heart by someone who's treated you unfairly saying a word they were too afraid/hateful to use, I can't help but feel like it's walking the path of least resistance. A grand journey of over 2h where the ending for a queer person is for her parent is signified by a simple word.

To be clear, my biggest problems with the film stem from its conservative politics - and the handling of the mother/daughter relationship fits to into its frame perfectly. The worldview espoused by EE, a film consisting of barrages of of positive nihilism ('Nothing matters', '"You're capable of anything because you're so bad at everything.') - which insists on the insignifance of everything surrounding its characters ('Oh, don't worry, that was a burner universe!'), so wholly convinced of the solution to society's ills to be a return to tradition ('The instutions are crumbling. We need to return to the way things were before') conveniently glossing over the fact that the conditions back then lead to how things are now, that there isn't a 'better time where everything was OK and everyone was happy' to return to. And no, breaking away from your biological family due to the way they treat you and your found loved ones does not mean the apocalypse is nigh. It's a film that nauseatingly spends its last third on repeating kindness as a solution to conflict, unhappiness and injustice. Against familial rejection of who you are, bigotry, systemic ills and injustice ("No matter what you do, at least be kind")

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad and happy for everyone who feels seen and understood by this film, who could get so much that's meaningful and positive out of it! The fighting scenes are good, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are great. However, in my opinion the film doesn't do nearly enough to flesh out the characterization of its well-acted characters nor do I find its messaging resonant or personally helpful at all. It came across as one of complacency, of forcing a smile and accepting the hand you're dealt with, not trying to meaningfully change the conditions we're living under, challenging the systems that harm us day by day, that puts us and people at large down in the first place, whilst everything around us is crumbling. It's something I firmly reject. Kindness is not an antidote to queerphobia and racism, let alone the overarching poison of capitalism shaping every nook and cranny of our lives.

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